Caritas connects with war-struck kids in Sri Lanka

Free special education classes are helping children with learning or physical handicaps as a result of the civil war
Caritas connects with war-struck kids in Sri Lanka

Children study at Andankulam R.T.C.M School in Mannar, Sri Lanka in this October photo. The students' families have also been given traveling allowances and monthly nutrition packs. (Photo by Quintus Colombage/ucanews.com)

The Catholic Church's charity arm is catering to slow learners and underperformers in remote villages still affected by the legacy of the war in Sri Lanka's Northern Province, including children with physical and mental handicaps who were failing miserably at regular government schools.

Half of the Tamil population was displaced at least once during the 26-year civil war between the military and the Tamil Tigers, who were seeking an independent territory, that left over 100,000 people dead.

Many were forced to live in temporary camps and many Tamil mothers gave birth to children in makeshift huts.

Thousands of children and pregnant women were displaced and experienced bitter lessons during the war due to artillery shells, aircraft bombs, suicide bombs, grenades, and landmines. 

Like others, 11-year-old Nagarasa Srivargini lost her ability to talk and walk in 2009, when she was 2 years old, during the last stage of the war.

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Her family was displaced several times, along with others, and she survived a bomb that fell on a bunker while they were living temporarily at Mullivaikkal in Mullaitivu.

Andiyappar Thevar and his daughter head home after a day of classes at the government-run Andankulam R.T.C.M School in Mannar. Half of the Tamil population were displaced during the civil war between the Tamil Tigers and Sri Lankan military that ended a decade ago. Many Tamils were forced to live in temporary camps, leading to numerous children being born in makeshift huts. (Photo by Niranjani Roland/ucanews.com)

  

Like some children, she remains traumatized by the unforgettable memories of the blasts, death and destruction.

"Due to all the explosions from the shelling, my daughter was not able to speak or walk properly," said 45-year-old Andiyappar Thevar at Vattaikandal in Mannar.

"We sent her to a government school but they couldn't understand her situation or support her studies," said Thevar, a Tamil farmer who has five children.

He runs a small dairy farm and cultivates paddy fields to provide for his family.

Now Srivargini studies at the government-run Andankulam R.T.C.M School in Mannar with 13 other schoolchildren. They attend a special class in a dedicated classroom operated by Caritas Valvuthayam. 

Caritas Valvuthayam in Mannar Diocese has been implementing the free program with specially trained teachers and volunteers for children with special needs since 2017.

The program also runs a series of workshops for parents and teachers of children lead by specially trained experts. Caritas has linked up with other NGOs and the government to provide financial support for the children and parents.

Mathavan refused to speak when he first entered the school and was unable to form relationship with other kids. He became a slow learner.

The 16 year old was injured during a mortar attack in 2008 at Vallai Madham in Mannar. Several bullets also riddled his body and he had to undergo a number of operations. He still has bullet fragments lodged in his body.

Nagarasa Srivargini's father shows off the medal and certificate she earned for her drawings. Caritas runs a series of workshops for parents and teachers lead by specially trained experts. The Catholic-run charity agency has linked with other NGOs and the government to provide financial support for children and parents affected by the civil war. (Photo by Quintus Colombage/ucanews.com)

 

"He is a good tennis player. He likes to draw. He always dresses neatly and now he has started to share his food and stationary with his classmates," said Muththalingam Nagarani, a specially trained, government-employed teacher at the school.

"The children here have improved their skills. When I talk to them in a friendly, loving and caring manner, they show more passion for their studies. But if I crack the whip and order them to study, they often don't," Nagarani said.

The families of the students have also been given travel allowances and monthly nutrition packs to help them make ends meet, officials said.

According to statistics from the World Health Organization (WHO), there are over a billion people living with some kind of disability worldwide, including 5.1 percent of the global population below the age of 15.

Sri Lanka's Department of Census and Statistics says that 8.7 percent of the country's population had a disability as of 2012, with many of the affected in the 15-29 age bracket.

Nicholas Frank, a coordinator for Caritas, said many of the children are also given bankbooks with small deposits so they can learn to manage their own money.

"Caritas officers pay field visits to meet parents and conduct awareness programs on handling emotions, building relationships, domestic violence, family budget, and individual and group counseling sessions," said Frank.

"They conduct physiotherapy assessments in order to prefabricate the children's devices. They also organize a disability assessment clinic," he said.

"It is very difficult to gather children in one place on time due to the problem of transport and the workload of their parents," he added.

"Moreover, their parents are unable to provide nutrition according to the advice and suggestion of doctors."

Frank said many of the children born during the war with special needs, especially those with Down syndrome, suffer from fear, stress, trauma and malnourishment.

According to the Foundation for the Rehabilitation of the Disabled, at least 20,000 people living in the north of the country have a disability as a result of the war. Others say the real number could be much higher.

Thevar said his daughter can write Tamil characters, count, draw, and use a smartphone, and that her frustration at struggling to learn new things is slowly being overcome.

"She used to lack patience and but now she's learning to deal with this," he said.

"She went to an art competition recently and won a medal for her drawings. Now she gets up early every morning and is keen to go to classes," he added.

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